Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Cape Symphony Orchestra season opener: Pastorale, Tan Dun, Stella Sung. Reviewed

Composer Tan Dun. Nana Watanabe photograph

Composer Tan Dun. Nana Watanabe photograph

Turn off your cellphones at concerts—that’s the rule. 

Not for the musicians though.

They have to leave them on, if Tan Dun’s exhilarating “Secret of Wind and Birds,” which the Cape Symphony Orchestra included in its season-opening concert Saturday evening at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center, in on the program.

Tan Dun’s infectious passacaglia—ten minutes of improvisation, atmospheres and recorded bird songs using the orchestra’s cell phones—was one of the highlights of a pastorale program that music director Jung-Ho Pak programmed to start the season. The music leaned heavily on visual accompaniment, demonstrating new video screens to each side of the stage. 

Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony—Pak began the 2020 celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday with an unusual opener—and Tan Dun’s passacaglia were accompanied by musical/video amalgams created by Stella Sung/Annie Crawley (“Oceana”) and Matt Correia/Tom Chartrand (“Soaring Over the Sound”).

All told, it was a celebration of nature, along with musical alerts to the dangers of sonic pollution (the basis of Sung’s piece). The performance included various scientists and speakers addressing those concerns.

Beethoven’s Pastorale filled the first half of the program. It’s unusual to begin an evening with the filmic symphony, but it set the tone. Pak showed landscapes, painted by Cape Cod artists, on the screens, but this symphony needs no visuals. Musically, Beethoven paints nature in its most intimate moments—birdsongs, running brooks, thunderstorms—through imaginative sounds.

The orchestra played brilliantly. Especially in the first two movements, the CSO responded to Pak’s intensity and emotion with their own. A passing comment at intermission—“I feel like I’ve been to a full-length movie—summed up the impact.

Tan Dun’s one-movement work, a 2015 Carnegie Hall commission, displays the childlike invention that the Chinese composer brings to his music. Not only employing a digital forest of birdsongs, Dun has the orchestra improvising, whispering, whistling and snapping their fingers. No rules govern Tan Dun’s compositions, and the effect—as it was here—feels like joy.

The musical/video amalgams mostly overestimated their musical ideas. But as is usually the case, Pak and the CSO combined fascinating works in unusual ways, and the audience—a sold-out hall, as usual—responded enthusiastically.

The next Cape Symphony performances will be Mancini at the Movies, Oct. 12 and 13. Visit www.capesymphony.org or call 508-362-1111.

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